The former camel jockey talks about his jet-setting lifestyle and the pressures he now faces as a winning rider at the Breeders' Cup.
Affable Ajtebi is riding high
It has been a whirlwind year for Ahmed Ajtebi, a winning jockey at the Breeders' Cup World Championships. Taken into the Godolphin fold after stealing two races from under the noses of a field of far more accomplished horsemen on Dubai World Cup night, the Emirati is blazing an untrodden trail for UAE riders at the world's most prestigious race meetings.
In Dubai before heading to Mauritius and the December International Jockeys' Championship, Ajtebi found himself riding at the UAE's small courses as he enjoys a stint on home dirt. Jebel Ali's yellow-painted grandstand and curiously-shaped track is a far cry from the glamour of Santa Anita during the Breeders' Cup, Longchamp's Arc day, or Royal Ascot, all venues of headline-grabbing triumphs for the former camel jockey.
But Ajtebi's rapid rise to international jet-setter started in the sand of the UAE and it is fitting he return to his roots at the conclusion of his heady season. And, according to the affable jockey, whether the world is watching or whether it is a small crowd at Jebel Ali, his role is still the same. "That's the game, it's always the same to be honest," he said, wearing the colours of Sheikh Mansour bin Mohammed.
"Whether it's a Maiden or a Group One the job of the jockey is the same. You still look at the form, you still try to work out how the race will go and most of all, you still want to win it." What has changed for Ajtebi is the attention he gets. At 27 he may be older than most jockeys who have only just shed their apprentice tag, but his rise to fame has been nothing short of stellar. He is happy to be riding the crest of the wave, but acknowledges success comes with its own issues.
"The problem now is that people are looking for me to win," he said. His point had already been proven for him when his ride in the first that day, Emirates Line, faded to fourth on Jebel Ali's punishing uphill finish after receiving rapturous cheers for his early, front-running efforts. "Now there is added pressure. Before, when no one knew me, if I came last, it's no big deal because no one writes about you and no one cares.
"Now I have come to ride at Jebel Ali and all the newspapers reported I was coming back to Dubai. I didn't ride a winner but everybody will be writing in the newspaper, 'Ahmed had a ride today but didn't win'." After a season in which he captured two Group Ones, two Group Twos, had 20 winners for Godolphin, and hopped between England, France, Italy and the USA on a private jet, Ajtebi may feel entitled to time off.
But he feels compelled to capitalise on his success. "I don't feel like I've had a break for a while but I'm not keen to take one at the moment," he said. "I'm trying to get my name known. Right now my focus is to work hard." It is also a time when many are speculating on the relationship between Ajtebi and Godolphin's long-time No 1 jockey Frankie Dettori. The flamboyant Italian had a muted year by his own high standards.
Up until November 14 he had claimed just a single Group One success for his Dubai employers with Schiaparelli in the Italian Gran Premio del Jockey Club del Coppa d'Oro. But Dettori should never be discounted and scored at the end of the European season on the excellent two-year-old, Passion for Gold, in the French 10-furlong Group One Criterium de Saint Cloud. Much could be read into the fact that it was Ajtebi, rather than Dettori, who took Godolphin's rides in the Arc day Group One Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere on Buzzword (third) and the Group One Breeders' Cup Juvenile Dirt on Vale of York (first).
Ajtebi, though, who will be 28 next month, 12 days after Dettori turns 39, says it is only thanks to the Italian that he has gained such valuable experience. "Frankie is one of the top jockeys in the world and definitely the first jockey for Godolphin," he says. "He has been very good with me and that's how I was able to ride Buzzword and Vale of York at Longchamp and Santa Anita. He could have taken those rides but he said that as I knew the horses I should ride.
"It was an amazing thing for him to do because the Breeders' Cup was a first for me, but Frankie has been riding races there for years. His advice was essential and I'll always be thankful." Much of Ajtebi's success this season has come aboard juveniles such as Buzzword and Vale of York. The jockey agrees that partnering two-year-olds - the youngest age at which a horse can race - has added another dimension to his riding.
"It was something new to my game. In Dubai there are no top-tier races for that age group, so this season was the first time I really got to grips with juveniles," he said. "They are raw and green and they need to be nursed a bit more. I worked these horses at home but you don't know exactly what they will do when you get them to the races. Sometimes you have a horse that you know is class but is just too green in running. They need more patience."
Patience is something Ajtebi has not really needed so far, but while the Emirati knows his success is a combination of talent as well as a few helping hands thanks to his contacts, he takes nothing for granted. "I am prepared to work harder than ever," he says. "I had rides at some of the biggest meetings in the world - days that jockeys dream to be a part of and I never forget for a moment how lucky I am and that I need to keep learning and listening."